The Gay Boxer in History: Al Panama Brown
A bantamweight boxing champion with a cabaret career on the side
Thanks to a memorable book by José Corpas, we have a history of the remarkable gay boxer known as Al Panama Brown (1902-1950; Black Ink: A Story of Boxing, Betrayal, Homophobia, and the First Latino Champion [Iowa City: Win By KO Publications, 2016]).
Male athletes have been reluctant to identify themselves as gay or bisexual because they have reasonably feared prejudiced reactions. Given the intimidation factor, which has only recently broken down (see next post), the career and courage of Al Panama Brown (1902-1951) are nothing short of epic. Wise he was not, but he was brave to the point of defiance, and he made his mark. Brown did not see his sexuality and his boxing prowess as contradictory, as so many people did during his lifetime and do today. Rather, he assimilated his flamboyance and his talents as singer and dancer to his extremely successful career as a bantamweight. His efforts, it is easy to imagine, were not appreciated.
We might wonder how Brown, a man of many sides, got into boxing. Corpas says that as boys Brown and his friends often fought in the streets of Colón, Panama. Brown’s father’s death was a turning point. Brown began to wear his father’s hat, and the skinny kid in a floppy cap was often ridiculed. Brown punished his detractors with his fists. He was good at it, and when he went to a boxing gym he was quickly identified as a rising star. He trained in the gym that had been used by the Panamanian star Kid Norfolk and other fighters idolized by Brown. His family was extremely poor, and perhaps the key to his early boxing success is one of Brown’s mottos, which Corpas translates as, “If you can fight, you get cash; if you can’t, you get bashed” (p. 26). Brown was also good at track, but he preferred boxing because it paid cash; track stars, he said, were paid in medals (p. 27).
By 1922 Brown was on his way up the boxing ladder and on his way to New York, a boxing Mecca. After working in restaurants, he found his way to Grupp’s Gym. He weighed 114 pounds, but his reach amazed everybody: “A flyweight with the height and reach of Jack Dempsey,” they said (p. 45). Soon he was Panama Al Brown, highly regarded both in boxing circles and also in the Harlem bar scene (p. 55). Just when he could have been arriving in the boxing world, Brown’s cabaret and bar interests fed rumors about his sexuality. Brown became an outcast, having lost his managers and protectors and finding it difficult to get matches.
We hear less today about boxers in Brown’s weight class. Bantamweights and others who box in the lighter weight classes tend to be less well-known now than the heavyweights. Today, for example, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua are talked about more than the highly successful (and undefeated) super lightweight Ryan Garcia. Yet the current list of the most popular weight classes does not include heavyweight. In 2016 the classes were, beginning with the most popular: superwelterweight (154); welterweight (147 lbs); light heavyweight (175 lbs); superfeatherweight (130 lbs.); featherweight (130 lbs); supermiddleweight (168 lbs); and superflyweight (115 lbs; see Bleacherreport.com, 4/4/23). Is that because the big boxers are considered more masculine, simply because of their size?
Brown boxed in three classes, flyweight (112 lbs), bantamweight (115-118 lbs), and featherweight (126 lbs). He was a remarkable athlete. Tall for his weight class, 5’11”, Brown had a reach of 76”. We can compare him to featherweight Orlando Cruz, 5’4” with a reach of 65”. With the height of the average middleweight, Brown boxed at bantamweight, where the average height today is 5’5”. He was the first Latin American world champion, with an amazing record of 163 fights and 129 victories. He ranks among the greatest of all bantamweight boxers and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1992.
Cabaret and controversy
Brown’s life outside the ring was notorious. Compared to his history, the behavior of today’s famously bad-boy boxers—Mike Tyson, for example—pales. Alcoholic, drug-addicted, and syphilitic, Brown was also a cabaret singer and dancer. A flamboyant dresser, he was usually seen at the center of a group of admirers and hangers-on very much like himself. His reputation unavoidably compromised his standing as a boxer.
Brown was a very active boxer. During and after his peak (1929-30) he fought on an average of once per month or more. He fought eight times in 1929, 16 times in 1930, 13 times in 1931, 17 times in 1932, and 11 times in 1933. Thereafter he dropped down to seven or eight fights yearly (1934-37, none in 1936) and then down to two or three (1938-42). He often boxed in Europe. In 1926 three of his 13 fights were in France; in 1927 he only fought in France. Not by coincidence, his cabaret career was centered in Paris.
Prejudice against Brown is glaring. In September 1928 Brown won the National Boxing Association bantamweight title. Just a month later he was stripped of the title by the NBA president, without explanation. It was not “because of his color,” Corpas writes (p. 96). The implication is that it was his gayness that was the issue. In June 1929 Brown defeated Gregorio Vidal in New York and won the NBA title. The next day the NBA said it would “no longer recognize” a title in the bantamweight class (p. 111).
Brown continued to fight and to win. In February 1930 he won the New York State Athletic Commission title from Johnny Erickson. He was recognized as the “lineal” bantamweight titleholder, meaning that he took the title from the undisputed champion in that weight class and became the undisputed champion (this was before there were multiple titles in a single weight class). In October 1930 Brown won the International Boxing Union title as bantamweight, defeating Eugène Haut.
Corpas identifies 1932 as the year of Brown’s decline. However, Brown had almost 20 years to live. In January 1932 Brown was hospitalized with syphilis; penicillin was not yet used as a cure for this disease. He became addicted to painkillers (p. 143). Yet he resumed boxing in mid-March 1932 and then fought another 16 times that year, with 15 of those matches taking place outside the United States. Health problems, including loosening teeth, arthritis, and other ailments, did not slow his frantic pace.
Brown’s nadir might have been his November 1932 fight with Emile Pladner, which Brown began when he was high on amphetamines; he often fought when he was high on drugs or alcohol. The fight ended when Brown knocked out Pladner, by mistake sat down in Pladner’s corner, and then, making his way to his own corner, fainted when just as the count against Pladner reached ten (p. 155). Two weeks after this baffling performance, Brown fought in Sheffield, England (Dec. 1) and then in Brussels (Dec. 3); five days later he fought in Paris.
Brown was constantly goaded by his manager, Dave Lumiansky, who was a former insurance broker turned boxing mogul; he seems to have robbed the careless and distracted Brown at every turn. By 1928 Lumiansky had “sole possession of the rights to Brown” (p. 89). As Lumiansky found out, Brown was difficult to handle. He had to track down the boxer in the gay bars and sex clubs of Paris, as Corpas notes with obvious disgust (p. 158). He pushed Brown to fight three times a week, threatening to bankrupt the increasingly sick and exhausted boxer.
Brown’s flamboyance and boxing prowess were assets in his Paris life. He shared an apartment with Jean Cocteau, the French poet and a leader of the surrealist movement. Cocteau met Brown in 1938, when the boxer was dancing and singing in a Paris nightclub. The boxer reminded Cocteau of a “younger version” of himself (he was born in 1889 and was 12 years older than Brown). The men shared a birthday and shirt and shoe sizes (p. 204).
In March 1936 Brown lost to the Spanish boxer Baltasar Sangchili, who then, in a rematch later that year, took the International Boxing Union bantamweight title from Brown. In 1938 Brown regained the title. He was victorious, but Brown nonetheless had to be carried back to his dressing room on a stretcher (p. 211). After the rematch, however, Brown was again IBU bantamweight champion and the boxing world could see that, however unlikely it seemed, Brown was back.
Corpas notes that Cocteau’s interest in Brown was financial as well as sexual. Cocteau bet heavily on the boxer at ringside, where their communication during fights was often observed. Brown would signal to Cocteau when he was ready to end a fight. Cocteau would then place bet with ringside bookies and collected his earnings when the fight ended on Brown’s schedule (pp. 208-9). Cocteau wasted little time in moving on to other lovers when his interest in Brown waned.
Cocteau saw Brown as depressed and lost and seems to have felt that Brown could only be Brown if he boxed. Although the poet knew nothing about boxing, he encouraged Brown and oversaw Brown’s comeback, in some sense managing him. In 1936, when he needed medical treatment to withdraw from drugs, Brown received financial assistance from Cocteau’s close friend, Coco Chanel, who today is universally recognized as one of the most important figures in the history of fashion. She considered Brown one of the few “honorable” people Cocteau knew (p. 206).
Corpas’s book helps us recover Brown’s career and, along with it, the lives of the men Brown fought in the U.S., France, Algeria, and elsewhere. Brown began boxing after World War I; he lived in France in the years before World War II. Both wars and their impact on his and other careers form part of the book, a gift to readers looking for contexts for boxing and boxers from the past. We find out that boxing was big in Panama partly because of the influx of workers needed to built the canal.
Black Ink does not make it easy to connect the ups and downs of this most unusual and peripatetic boxer, but is a rich, engrossing, and often disturbing read. In a book that cries out for chronological organization, the necessary dates are buried mid-paragraph. Corpas’s account of the boxer’s ascent and descent are interspersed with accounts about the careers of other boxers. In order to be sure when important events had happened, I had to consult the boxing record printed at the end of the book, locate the fight being discussed in the text, and then note the year on the page describing the fight. To his credit, Corpas included an index of names as well as the boxer’s fight history, a courtesy very rare in boxing books.
Panama Al Brown was a man who made the most of all the talents he had been given. For my money, that’s a hallmark of the masculine man. That he had many talents was his blessing and, not surprisingly, his curse. His life was short by any standard but also too long for a man whose lack of discipline was, even by boxer standards, extreme. His success as a boxer was extraordinary. His collapse was no less remarkable. According to Corpas, Brown was found freezing near Times Square in 1951. He was taken to a police station and then to Bellevue Hospital. Some friends later moved him to a hospital on Staten Island, where he died a few days later of advanced tuberculosis. He was buried in Long Island City, his body then exhumed and returned to Panama, where he is buried in a national cemetery. Alfonso Teofilo Brown, Gloria national del boxeo are the words on his tombstone (p. 228). He was indeed a glorious boxer.
Boxing was not ready for Brown, but he was ready for boxing. Treated shabbily by managers and fans, he kept throwing punches at his opponents, at the world, and, disastrously, at himself.
A card signed by Lumiansky and Brown; 1932 bantamweight title